Monday, 31 May 2010

L.A. Confidential (1997)


A Peerless Adaptation of an 'Unfilmable' Novel

Now over a decade old, Curtis Hanson's love-letter to L.A. still stands up as one of the very best examples of a crime movie.

L.A. Confidential was first published as a novel by James Ellroy in 1990. A searing, complex tale of corruption and ambition in 50s Los Angeles, it was well received but deemed unfilmable, given the scope and density of the plot.

If anyone told Curtis Hanson that, he must have ignored them. Together with writer Brian Helgeland, he crafted a screenplay that efficiently condensed Ellroy's story into something workable in Hollywood terms.

The result was a spectacular success, ultimately nominated for nine Oscars (subsequently winning two, one of which rewarded Hanson and Helgeland for their work on the screenplay).

L.A. Confidential - the Plot

The movie opens with a terrific montage of period L.A. - images of seemingly boundless health, wealth and opportunity. The editor of a popular, sleazy tabloid (DannyDeVito) narrates over the visuals; as his words shift from cheery optimism to darkly humourous cynicism, so do the scenes: a flashbulb pops and illicit burlesque, drug busts and slain mobsters snap into view.

We're then introduced to three career cops, apparently unconnected, each with his own Achilles heel: Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a slick, confident cop caught in the media spotlight in his role as advisor to a TV show; Ed Exley (Guy Pierce), a fresh-faced, ambitious cop, living in the shadow of his father's success; and Bud White, a no-nonsense detective with a dark secret that fuels a pathological desire to avenge women in distress.

It's testament to Hanson's mastery of the material that these protagonists are so deftly drawn in the first ten minutes - everything we need to know about their motivations is clear. Each have their own strategies for survival and success, but it isn't until one fateful Christmas night that their lives are violently thrown together.

'Bloody Christmas'

Tempers spill over following a relaxed night of on-duty drinking in the police precinct, resulting in a mini-riot when officers beat inmates held in the cells. The resultant media uproar has Exley testify against his peers, turning him into a pariah.

But when a vicious multiple killing occurs - dubbed the 'Nite Owl killings' - and Bud White's old partner turns out to be one of the victims, all three cops are drawn into a plot that inexorably leads to endemic corruption within their own department.


'Whores - Cut to Look Like Movie Stars'

Matters are further complicated by the activities of Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a rich playboy and owner of a very exclusive club specialising in the prostitution of girls who look like Hollywood stars - in some cases, surgically altered to look that way.

And this leads to the movie's only central female role: Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, a dead-ringer for Veronica Lake). Fascinatingly, she provides the one single character who understands who she is, why she does what she does. Lynn works for Patchett, leading White's investigations to her door; given his gallantry toward vulnerable women, Bud is inevitably drawn to her.

An Early Conclusion

When police Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) announces a strong lead in the Nite Owl case, a bungled arrest is made, resulting in violent confrontation and several bodies. Still, it looks like there's a nice, easy resolution to the crime.

A strange peace edges into the film, exactly one hour in; a montage of events shows each cop enjoying the glories of success while Kay Starr's 'Wheel of Fortune' plays out in it's entirety. It's a brilliant scene, culminating in a look of doubtful introspection for each of the leads. Everything appears rosy, but all have made concessions and compromises. Life returns to normal - or so it seems.

Not long after, a sudden, audacious twist changes everything. Revealing what that twist is would be to spoil the moment - suffice to say, it's such a jolt that any other film would be in danger of losing it's audience here. A character is revealed in true colours, but at a terrible price.

From that point on, the pace never lets up - and because of what just happened, all bets are off, and no character is safe.

The fallibility of the characters is what makes proceedings so compelling. A blistering final act tests the courage and resolve of the men to the limit.


The painstaking recreation of L.A. reveals a labour of love for Hanson. Backed by outstanding performances, the movie is pretty much unsurpassed.

The DVD release is packed with a wealth of features, many narrated by Hanson himself and providing a fascinating journey not just through the production history, but the milieu too.

A film that rewards for constant viewing, it should be an essential disc in every collection.


  1. This is the only movie I can think of that's just as good as the (staggeringly brilliant, IMO) book on which it it's based, and I've always though the only reason it reaches the book is because it's not wed to it at all. Hanson's and Helgeland's screenplay at times is completely different from the book -- it's incredibly ballsy of them, but in the end their choices made the movie must better than it'd have been otherwise, had they tried to be faithful to Ellroy.

  2. There's a great interview with Ellroy on the DVD I watched the movie on: Ellroy is as frank and forthright as ever, saying he basically hated the idea of a movie, could not see how it would work, and yet adored the final result. It's a very rare example of Hollywood getting it right when it comes to adapting novels.

    Thanks for stopping by, Martha! I appreciate your contribution.